Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 20, 2013
Daniel H. Magilow The Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012. 200 pp.; 45 ills. Cloth $64.95 (9780271054223)
Sarah E. James Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures across the Iron Curtain New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 280 pp.; 10 color ills.; 170 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300184440)
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Daniel H. Magilow’s The Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany and Sarah E. James’s Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures across the Iron Curtain investigate photography in its serial form, recruiting case studies from twentieth-century Germany to explore their claims. Counter to the rather substantive body of research on photomontage that interrogates the semiotics and somatics of juxtaposed, cropped, found, and staged photographs, these recent contributions to the history and theory of photography explore the meanings and subject positions engendered by pictorial succession. More emphatically than the montage of photographs on a single plane, the structure of photographic seriality generates scholarly hypotheses about conceptual or temporal contiguity in a narrative framework, however open or polyphonic. The sequential photography under investigation here includes photo-essays, photobooks, and exhibition installations, manufactured by photographers, photo editors, writers, and curators. The reach is broad, aiming to incorporate the plurality of photographic practices and experiences. While similar in thematic content, these two books diverge quite significantly in methodology, a difference that originates not only in discipline-specific procedures—one study emerges out of German studies (Magilow), the other out of art history (James)—but also in assumptions about the role of the photograph in interpretation.

In The Photography of Crisis, Magilow proposes to re-read a moment in history via a representative technological form, endeavoring to offer a new perspective on the tumultuous period of the Weimar Republic (1918–33) through the lens of the photo essay. Mass-reproduced photography saturated the public sphere in the interwar era, facilitated by crucial innovations in photographic and printing technologies, and manifest in the ubiquity of photobooks, illustrated newspapers, and magazines. Pictorial information adopted a cultural role so unprecedented that commentators both feared and celebrated the demise of the printed word—a tendency that Magilow labels a “visual turn.” The term is a charged one, signaling a strand in traditionally text-based disciplines that examines the image as a unique site of historical, cultural, and discursive information. Though such a proposition may seem self-evident to the art historian, the old-fashioned practice of rigorous pictorial interrogation often has been supplanted by a productive range of poststructuralist approaches, only to be recuperated by scholars outside the discipline as a site of critical innovation. In this context, Magilow interrogates the Weimar photo-essay as a novel ideological form, defined as the “sequencing or arrangement of photographs to tell stories, make arguments, communicate ideas, elicit narratives, evoke allegories and persuade listeners to accept new ways of seeing and thinking” (4).

Though the degree of agency in opinion formation was ultimately overplayed at the time, as Magilow argues, the widespread belief in the power of the photograph during the Weimar Republic generated a series of primers or photobooks whose ambition was to school the beholder’s eye in modern sensory experience. More than simply noting this fact, as several scholars do, Magilow unpacks how individual photo-essays fashion a critical spectator, stopping short of incorporating that projected spectator as an embodied subject back into the relevant historical framework. Thus, the imagined beholder hovers ahistorically but haunts the book in productive ways. The first two chapters establish the broader foundations of Weimar photo culture and its debates, material that has been treated analytically elsewhere but not mapped to date as thoroughly and systematically as in Magilow’s book. The subsequent three chapters carefully embed various photo projects in specific, albeit diachronically plotted, discursive contexts, interweaving prominent cultural categories—Nature, Physiognomy, Crisis—with the photograph’s interventions.

While “crisis” is treated independently in chapter 5, offering a more or less localized account of photographic shock experience in the year 1931, the titular designation “photography of crisis” refers rather generally to crises of modernity accompanying accelerating urbanization, rationalization, and technologization. The Weimar Republic was certainly throttled by specific political, economic, and social crises—botched revolution, right-wing putsches, spiralling inflation, foreign occupation, rampant violence both sexual and political, foundering democracy, record unemployment, to name just a few—but Magilow elects to emphasize its metaphysical dimensions, notably as wielded by the far Right. His treatment of The Dangerous Moment, an anthology of 1931 that unifies a series of press photographs under a thematic introduction written by prominent conservative thinker Ernst Jünger, is acutely observed, interlocking photography’s “cold indifference” with technological embodiment, spectacle, and the right-wing imaginary (126). Jünger’s counterpoint in the chapter is Jewish photographer Erich Solomon’s book Famous Contemporaries in Unguarded Moments, whose practice Magilow rescues from simplification and cliché. The overarching treatment of “crisis,” however, might have been better served by the critical histories of actual late Weimar crises penned by H. A. Winkler (Der Weg in die Katastrophe 1930–1933, Bonn: J. H. W. Dietz Verlag, 1999) or K. D. Bracher (Die Krise Europas: 1917–1975, Frankfurt: Propyläen, 1976; and Die Auflösung der Weimarer Republik, Königstein: Athenäum Verlag, 1978) than the more generalized cultural-historical account of Eric Weitz on which Magilow relies (Eric Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). At risk in generalized nods to historical events and discourses is the dilution and isolation of photographic meaning, which is contingent on its discursive context.

Magilow’s interpretation of photo-essays, which includes their incarnation in both books and magazines, focuses on the function of narrative—“not what they are as objects but what they do as forms of narrative”—in which reading is understood as “an interactive endeavor resembling a kind of game” (10; emphasis in original). Invested in the potency of images, his account is infiltrated with a language of textuality, arguing via W. J. T. Mitchell that the emphasis on reading, and in particular narrativity and its related modes, is justified because photo-essayistic forms tend to appear in the context of print media—books, magazines, newspapers. One wonders, however, if the framework of reading might be replaced with that of embodied attention, a topic that was of great interest to Weimar critics, scholars, and practitioners, thus opening up other conceptual and temporal models. Staking a clearer position on the relationship of text to image would have elucidated Magilow’s theoretical investment in photography, for some passages suggest that photography seeks to imitate language, while in others the medium exceeds the ambitions of the printed word. Beholders of photographs are frequently characterized as “readers” or even “listeners” as in the quotation cited above; the interpretation of photographic serial structures invites forms of “reading” rather than modes of attending or viewing the new sensorial relationships that Magilow argues photographs provoke. Comparisons between photography and language are frequent, such as the assertion that the New Vision “reconceptualiz[es] photography as language,” for which Werner Graeff’s euphoric celebration of modern, technologically assisted visuality Here Comes the New Photographer!—a photobook of 1929—operates as case study (21). Nevertheless, Magilow’s book proceeds on the basis of close analysis of photographs, both singular and in their serial contexts, keen not “to subscribe to the naïve rhetoric of photographic indexicality and transparency and the corollary belief that photographs do not require interpretation because they somehow ‘speak for themselves’” (11). Though including a relatively modest number of reproductions at forty-five, Magilow consistently attends to their structure, context, and meaning, incorporating photographic elements such as stasis, blur, interruption, graininess, etc., into his analysis. The result is a thoughtfully and elegantly argued contribution to Weimar photo history.

James’s Common Ground presents an ambitious assemblage of photographic activity during the Cold War, ranging from critical photographic practice to curatorial strategies and editorial approaches. Beginning in 1955 and ending in 1994, with forays into the photography and theory of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich (1933–45), her book aims to shed light on postwar subjectivity though the interrogation of six case studies united by their use of photographic sequencing. These case studies include: Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 Kriegsfibel, an antifascist photobook; Karl Pawek’s 1964 West German exhibition What is Man?, an homage to Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man; the unrealized photo-essays of East German photographer Evelyn Richter; the collaborative project of West German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher; the series Totengesichter, or portraits of the dead, by East German photographer Rudolf Schäfer; and West German Michael Schmidt’s photo-essay Ein-heit (U-ni-ty) (1991–94).

Though the selection is chronologically wide-ranging and conceptually varied, James asserts they are united in their refusal of the singular photographic image and, more importantly, in their embrace of what she calls the “the meta-photographic.” Although not deployed consistently, this pivotal term in the book appears to involve the pedagogical use of photographic sequences “using either the juxtaposition of difference or the repetition of the same, to attempt to provide specific, and necessarily politicized, models for particular ways of seeing” (9). Elaboration, however brief, on James’s rationale for using the term “meta-photography” to describe the triangulation of seriality, politicized subjectivity, and pedagogy would have embedded it more convincingly within her polemic, especially given that other scholars have used the term to mean photography about photography and computer-generated photography.

Through their serial aspect, the projects that James selected for discussion generate “‘a common ground’ that relates the sequenced images, the photographer and the spectator, and spectators, producing a shared experience” (9). How this “common ground” and “shared experience” negotiates a different terrain than Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibition, widely criticized for its universalism, essentialism, and naïve humanism, as James observes, is left open to speculation and surely rests in the individualized, affective processes of perception. James’s notion of sequential photography as a social form derives from Blake Stimson’s analysis of the embodied reception of exhibition photographs in The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006) (click here for review). In this robustly historicized and theorized book, Stimson examines three case studies originating in the 1950s—Steichen’s The Family of Man, Robert Frank’s The Americans, and the Becher’s typologies of industrial architecture—to investigate the relation between photographic seriality, nation, and an identity specific to a brief postwar moment. Riffing on Stimson’s important precedent, Common Ground suggests an ideologically expanded retort to the question of postwar documentary photography, rooted in divided nationhood and ideological strife. Together, these studies by Stimson and James propose one possible conceptual framework for interpreting serial photography in the atomic age.

Richly illustrated and dense with information, Common Ground introduces English-speaking audiences to photographic projects less widely known outside of Germany, particularly Pawek’s post-fascist exhibition, the strategically opaque work of Richter, and Schäfer’s morbid investigations. The territory sketched in these chapters transports the reader through swathes of historical material, including a discussion of the photobooks of the reactionary Jünger, an extensive treatment of the reception of Steichen’s exhibition in Germany, and the politics of photography and of death rituals under socialism. Though singular and serial photographs are rarely given extensive visual or material analysis, treated frequently as transparent pictures or self-evident representatives of discourse, the chapter on Richter offers the exception to the rule, opening with a sustained discussion of Entrance to a Nursing Home, Leipzig (1986). Here James begins to unpack the layers of meaning and insinuation typically recruited by anti-hegemonic East German photography, illuminating how photographs subtly recoded so-called documentary material, singly and in assemblages. The term “documentary” carries considerable weight in this account, often allied with “humanism,” “identity,” “subjectivity” and “realism,” all loaded concepts whose critical force in the book’s fascinating but vulnerable argument about pedagogic picturing would be amplified by reflexive use. So, too, the book’s repeated phrase “photography’s sequential or serial nature,” which undercuts seriality as the product of technical-historical construction and convention. Precisely the artifice rather than inevitability of photography’s mechanical reproducibility lays it bare for the ideological critique at the heart of James’s study.

“It is by approaching a range of documentary projects which emerged in East and West Germany from the 1950s to just after the fall of the Berlin Wall as manuals, or primers,” James contends, “and through examining the self-reflexive realisms articulated by them, that one can uncover the different (and now historical) models of political subjectivity contained within them, as well as the different subjective experiences—less confined to history—sought and engendered by them” (9; emphasis in original). Taking Pawek’s exhibition as one case in point, James’s analysis of what she calls Pawek’s “photo essay” proceeds by summary and systematic description of photographs included. James considers the meaning of canny combinations and the ideological import of single photographs, emphasizing the presence of what she describes as violent juxtapositions, based on pictorial content rather than form. Example pairings include a group portrait of the Surrealists congregated around a female body constructed of food with a picture of Peruvian burial remains, or a photo of the Hamburg stock exchange with a slaughterhouse. The affective, repellent dimension to such pairings is implied rather than elaborated in Common Ground, but the overall effect, as James notes, is one of disjointed, disharmonious experience. The presentation of the exhibition proceeds in sequence, implying a narrative progression rather than the potent unifying role of interstices and pauses that feature in Stimson’s account of exhibitions. The regrettable absence of a bibliography in Common Ground (presumably the publisher’s decision) makes it difficult to ascertain whether the challenging reconstruction of three-dimensional, immersive experience occurred archivally or by catalogue, somewhat obscuring the scholarly skeleton of this study. As James argues, television and the mass media put pressure on photography to become an all-pervasive form as well. Thus, Pawek’s exhibition “reflected the transformative world of the 1960s and the partial displacement of photojournalism by the hegemonic spectacle of television” (85). Arguing intermedially, James compares the disturbing juxtapositions of Pawek’s project with double-page spreads of Life magazine, reproduced in color on facing pages for the contemporary reader to inspect as might have been done in 1945. How the beholder, both then and now, would be constructed or schooled is not plotted explicitly, but presumably involves the provocation of disjunctive content. Consistent and sustained argumentation on this register would have contributed to a clearer account of the subject positions James understands to be projected in these postwar examples.

The range of shifting cultural experiences and modes of identity formation in the timeframe covered by Common Ground is vast and manifold. As James observes, this includes German cultural amnesia about the Holocaust; rapid Americanization; the vagaries of postwar reconstruction; the institutionalization of socialism; public versus private life in the GDR in the face of Stasi surveillance; conflicts of individualism in both Germanys; atomic anxiety; 1960s oppositional social movements; and the cultural, social, and ideological difficulties involved in coming to terms with a reunited Germany. The Cold War era in this divided nation was an ideological minefield, heterogeneous and complex, spanning several decades. The challenge of charting the shifts of political subjectivity via photography is tremendous and even aspirational, one that James tackles with alacrity, at the risk of reaching only tenuous conclusions. In a voracious, often whirlwind argument, Common Ground doggedly lays the initial foundations for further such investigation, offering provocations for more concentrated, discrete studies to draw upon.

With the study of serial photography in its infancy, readers will avail themselves of the rich models offered in these two new books by Magilow and James. Together they further the scholarship on photographic cultures in their multiple discursive, theoretical, and material incarnations. Far from being a straightforwardly documentary medium, photography in its serial form generates modes of interpretation that, as both authors demonstrate, require the beholder to unravel hidden meanings, decipher political allegory, and understand the photograph both somatically and conceptually. While Magilow’s book illuminates significant aspects of photographic seriality during the interwar period—a moment not only characterized by a self-conscious discovery of the photo-essay in a newly flourishing photographic culture industry, but also by extreme political volatility—James’s account continues that investigation of politics and photography in several fraught Cold War frameworks, extending the much-needed study of photographic communication under ideological extremes. As a pair, these books offer an important perspective on the intersection of ideology and photographic narrative in critical moments of twentieth-century history and culture.

Sabine T. Kriebel
Lecturer, History of Art, University College Cork, Ireland

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.